Success is not an abstract notion for Theoretical Girl
By day, 30-year-old Amy Turnnidge is an occupational therapist in London who works with mentally disturbed teenagers. But by night, she is Theoretical Girl, able to thrill music geeks the world over with guitar chords and choruses about unrequited love.
It's a transformation that started after the singer's original girl group broke up and the shy Turnnidge was suddenly thrust into the spotlight for a make-or-break musical moment.
'I was going to disguise myself so the audience would never know who I was,' says Turnnidge, who plays Hong Kong tonight. 'So the plan was to have a mask or stand behind a screen. Then I realised that would be a bad idea, hence Theoretical Girl.'
Taking the name from one of her lyrics, Turnnidge is the latest in a growing line of musicians who've turned bedroom fantasies of making music into recording careers through talent, willpower, and modern technology.
With a mother who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and a father who loved Motown and soul, the musical genetics were there and the singer made the most of them, learning bass, keyboards and guitar. She then recorded songs into a four-track in her homemade bedroom studio in an effort to emulate legendary singer-songwriters such as Nick Drake, Billy Joel and Tom Waits.
'I love my home and recording is my favourite thing after work,' she says, adding that she gradually upgraded to an eight-track studio system. 'I've two favourite subjects: unrequited love. I always write about that. And then there's conflicts of some sort. The album is pretty much half and half.'
The album she's referring to is Divided, which is filled with a range of styles from 1980s-style new wave to classic 60s girl pop and even ska. Her vocals have an ethereal lo-fi quality that is somehow reminiscent of girl groups such as the Shangri-Las or 80s act the Adult Net, best heard on the single Red Mist. Other reviewers have likened her sound to everything from 80s dance act Propaganda to Echo and the Bunnymen.
Turnnidge is just glad people listen. 'I try not to think about what others think,' she says. 'You have to like it yourself. Recording the album was the best thing, then hearing it all together was really special.'
There has already been a global response. Even before the album's release in August, there were regular gigs in London, which culminated in an appearance at Glastonbury this summer ('It was just a dream come true,' she says of the festival).
There have also been invites to industry pow-wow South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas ('amazing', she says) and recent shows in Tokyo. 'I was jetlagged and would only get an hour's sleep a night,' she says of her shows in Yokohama. 'I had an idea that there would be lots of skyscrapers and ultra modern, but it was a really nice mixture of the nice and the old.'
Originally, Hong Kong was going to be tacked on to the end of that tour, but Turnnidge did, after all, have to go back to her day job. The prospect of finally playing here has her so excited that she has plenty of surprises up her sleeve.
'I've heard that people in Hong Kong are really big Britpop fans so I'll be doing some Britpop covers,' she says. 'I like to keep things simple. I won't be rolling around on the floor pretending to be Courtney Love. There will never be any U2-styled shows for me, though I would love to play with an orchestra.'
When Turnnidge doesn't have her Theoretical Girl cape on, she continues to work with teenagers in London who have no idea what she does in her spare time. Keeping her personal life separate from them is key for their emotional and mental development, as many of them have serious psychological problems.
'I usually work with 12 teenagers at an NHS hospital,' she says. 'We sit in a circle and talk about our feelings or going out for nice food and going to the cinema. It's something that interests me - mental health - as there have been some people in my family who have struggled with depression and addiction. It's also a backup plan, as I knew that I wanted to do music, but I didn't want to be a struggling musician. It's going to make me a better parent one day.'
Turnnidge repeatedly says how excited she is about her show in Hong Kong. As the days ticked away towards her date it would not be surprising to envision the singer packing her favourite albums by Nick Drake and Fleetwood Mac alongside Gertrude by Hermann Hesse ('It's about my two favourite subjects: unrequited love and music') alongside her Theoretical Girl cape.
'There's the thing people see and the real me,' she says. 'I never write about other people and I never make up stories. I just concentrate on trying to write good songs, making my stage shows good and being the best songwriter that I can be.'
Theoretical Girl live, tonight, 10.30pm, Rockschool, 2/F The Phoenix, 21-25 Luard Rd, Wan Chai, HK$200-HK$250. Tel: 2510 7339